Toronto International Film Festival Reviews — Part 2 of 5

This installment contains reviews of:

  • 12:08 East of Bucharest
  • Penelope
  • Manufactured Landscapes
  • Venus
  • Palimpsest
  • Paris, Je T’aime
  • Takva — A Man’s Fear of God
  • Death of a President

Yes, days 3 and 4 were busy days at the festival and a solid opening weekend.  One review, missed from the Friday batch in Part 1, is also included here.

Friday, September 8th

12:08 East of Bucharest / A fost sau n-a fost? (Is it or isn’t it?)
Corneliu Porumboiu
Rating: ***

12:08 pm, December 22, 1989 marked the abdication of Romanian dictator Ceausescu.  The anniversary of this date should be a major event for any media outlet — just look at the recent saturation coverage of the 5th anniversary of 9/11.

Our scene is a small, a very small TV station, so small it may only have one camera.  The nightly talk-show host has lined up notable guests to talk about their roles in revolution, but it’s the Christmas season.  One by one, they have better things to do.  Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is in a real pickle.  Who can he get to reminisce?

First up is an old acquaintance, Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), who is a history teacher and serious drinker in equal measure.  Another friend, the elderly Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) is getting ready to play Santa Claus in an over-large costume, and until the last minute we’re not sure whether Santa will appear as a veteran of the revolution.

Air time.  The show begins, and the guests desperately try to remember something important they were doing on the day.  Manescu claims that he was marching up and down in front of the town hall before the abdication (a decidedly unhealthy act).  However, the man who was the guard on duty that day phones in to say this is bunk, that  Manescu and his friends were drunk and asleep behind the hall.  As the show progresses, we wonder whether anyone actually protested against the regime before it fell.

The humour in 12:08 East of Bucharest is restrained, but knowing.  Blowhards exist in every society, retrospective heroes whose memories of past glories don’t quite match reality.

This is a small film that probably won’t show up in general distribution, but a delight.

Saturday, September 9th

Mark Palansky
United Kingdom
Rating: **1/2

Many, many years ago, the Wilherns offended a local witch.  People took this sort of thing seriously centuries ago, and a witch’s curse was not to be ignored.  The next girl born to the family would have a pig’s nose, but the Wilherns were lucky — only boys were born for generations.   Until Penelope.

The family is upper class, of course, because only the blue bloods would even care about this sort of problem.  Penelope lives in a sheltered world seeing only her immediate relatives, but the time has come to find her a husband, someone who will accept her as she is and thereby break the curse.

A series of eligible young men comes to the great house, but each, on seeing Penelope, run screaming from the room and exit via a window.  Much glass is broken until the family gets wise and installs shatterproof glass.  This saves on repairs, but doesn’t help Penelope one bit.

I suppose that I should introduce the cast.  Nina Ricci plays Penelope and she’s quite fetching even with her pig’s snout.  Somehow, the floppy ears that she had as a newborn have vanished in later life, probably because they were too troublesome for makeup, but the birth scene was already in the can.  Her parents Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and Franklin (Richard E. Grant) are upper class twits as this sort of plot demands.

Enter Max (James McAvoy) who is of suitably elevated birth, but definitely conducting a less elevated life.  As a gambling addict, he’s in need of money, and Penelope may be just who he needs.  Penelope has ideas of her own and escapes into the real world where she meets Annie (Reese Witherspoon, also the producer of this film) and starts to learn that the world is full of many odd sorts of people.

Penelope has more than a few continuity problems along the way:

  • The vanishing ears mentioned above
  • We hear breaking glass even after the shatterproof panes are installed
  • Characters speak in an odd mixture of American and British accents with no regard to their background
  • Penelope learns that she has to accept herself to break the curse.  This is a cheat, frankly, and has the feeling of an ugly duckling story where the heroine sees the true woman inside herself.

The best joke in Penelope is the end for Jessica, the blabbermouth, bossy mother who tries to manage everyone and everything around her.  The witch has a special treat just for her.

Penelope is Mark Palansky’s first feature, and as a Toronto native, I should be kind to him.  All the same, this is a film that tries to hard too be liked.  With more British subtlety it could have won me over completely.

Manufactured Landscapes
Jennifer Baichwal
Rating: ****
Toronto/CITY Award For Best Canadian Feature Film
Opens in Toronto September 29, 2006

Manufactured Landscapes treats (if that is the word) us to a tour of massive industrialization in China, with a side trip to Bangladesh while exploring different ways of seeing the man-made world.

On one level, we have Edward Burtynsky, a photographer working in large format scenes taken on an 8×8 view camera.  Something strange happens on this scale:  scenes that should inspire questions about man’s effect on the landscape if not disgust transform to abstract compositions.  Your eye wanders through the details, subconciously you appreciate the composition, the rhythm of elements just as you might a fine landscape painting.

On another level, we have Peter Mettler’s cinematography.  The same locations appear, but they are seeen from a moving camera, from a view where we must decide quickly what to look at, where the photographer and editor guide our eyes by the choice of camera angles, views and shot lengths.

Finally, we have the actual subject matter.  The rapid industrialization of China is creating, on a vast scale, industrial landscapes that took decades to evolve in the west.  The opening shot, nearly 10 minutes, tracks through an immense factory half a kilometer long.  Row after row after row of workers assemble an array of products — raw materials are stacked on one side of the factory and finished goods come off at the other.  This long shot is intercut with stills where faces get a chance to pop out, small elements in a huge machine.

China is not just a manufacturing centre, but also the end point for so much of our high-tech garbage.  Stacks of used electronics are stripped for parts and raw materials in an economy where this can be done cheaply enough to be worthwhile.

The sequence in Bangladesh shows us the graveyard of oil tankers.  Workers spend their days tracking through crude oil to cut apart these huge ships.  Meanwhile back in China, a huge shipyard turns out a fleet that will carry Chinese goods around the world.

All of this industry has a price.  We see the immense, 20-year construction project at the Three Gorges Dam, a hydro-electric project whose output will dwarf any of our nuclear reactors, but at the cost of relocating a major city’s worth of people living in the valley that will fill with water.  In Shanghai, we see old neighbourhoods disappear under forests of high-rise buildings.  Is this progress? 

Manufactured Landscapes shifts gradually from wide-eyed views of massive industrialization to questioning the impact on China and the West’s role in it.  I walked out of the theatre wondering what will happen when everything wears out at the same time and the country is filled with aging factories and run-down high-rise neighbourhoods.

Roger Michell
United Kingdom
Rating: ****

Venus is a delightful winter/spring romance between two unlikely characters.  Maurice (Peter O’toole in a delicious role) is an aging retired actor who meets fellow aged thespians every day at their local pub.  They chat, the trade samples of each other’s prescriptions and talk about their daily woes.  Ian (Leslie Phillips) has a grand-niece who will soon come to stay with him both to help in his care and because there are problems at home.

Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) has a style miles from Ian’s world.  She’s into pop music, she can’t cook, and her main effect is do drive poor Ian mad.  Maurice, however, thinks she’s quite attractive and tries to chat her up.  At first, this is just a fascination with her youth and quirky character, but later there’s more.  Yes, you think, it’s a horny old O’Toole trying to hit on an innocent young girl, but it doesn’t work out that way.

Jessie comes to see that Maurice isn’t just an old fool, and the two visit each other’s haunts — Maurice’s theatrical world and Jessie’s music clubs.  There’s some amusing culture shock on both sides.  We learn that Jessie’s had romantic problems in the past, and she comes to trust Maurice about them. 

Vanessa Redgrave plays Maurice’s ex-wife.  They may live apart, but they have been friends for 50 years.  There are only a few scenes between O’Toole and Redgrave, but they are gems.  The depth of long-held, mature regard between two people plays elegant counterpoint to the Maurice/Jessie friendship.

Maurice starts to fall in love and this takes Jessie into uncertain territory.  There are several theatrical throwaways in Venus, but Maurice’s recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) is spoken from the heart.  Hearing this, Jessie glimpses the depth in Maurice both as an actor and a person.

Things start to unravel when Maurice sees that Jessie has a boyfriend, and his own role is more to play the old coot who’s sweet on her.  This triggers a real crisis (I will avoid plot spoilers) and Jessie comes to see how deeply she hurt Maurice.  One last visit to the seashore seals their friendship.

Venus is one of my two favourite films from this year’s Festival.  Miramax is the US distributor, and I assume it will open sometime in the coming year.

Konrad Niewolski
Rating: ***1/2

A very dark night.  A street.  A body falls dead on the pavement.  A man washes his hands in a basin.  Another hand comes from out of frame to push his face underwater.  A phone rings.  These are elements of the murky opening of Palimpsest, the third feature from Konrad Niewolski. 

Marek (Andrej Chyra) is a police inspector, and a close friend, also an inspector, lies dead, thrown from his apartment window.  The investigation is to be very quiet, almost off the record, and Marek is assigned a partner he really doesn’t want to work with.

At first, Palimpsest looks like a stardard murder mystery with stylish cinematography, but as we learn more, things are not quite right.  Marek finds traces of himself and fears he is being framed for his friend’s murder.  He doesn’t know what or who to believe.  Some scenes repeat with changes.

Another reality, a clinic in overexposed white and frantic rhythms, bursts into the action from time to time.  Marek returns to the wash basin again and again.  What is going on here?

I don’t think that I’m giving away too much in telling you that most of what we see is in Marek’s mind.  He really is in a clinic for victims of acute alcoholism where he is almost totally disconnected from the real world.  The murdered man is another character in Marek’s head and each is grappling for control.  Who is really trying to kill whom?  What will happen if one of them succeeds?

A palimpsest, as a title card helpfully informs us, is a parchment where the message has been scraped off and a new one written in its place.  More generally it can be any surface where one image or message hides another.

This is a story of a man who thinks that he is sane, but only because of a dissociative inner life that he cannot fully control.  Marek’s world comes unglued and, with it, his own inner character.

In the Q&A, Niewolski explained that Palimpsest came from his concern at the damage caused by rising alcoholism in Poland.  Rather than making a moral, didactic film, he has given us a tale seen from inside the madness.  One other small touch: the surnames of Marek’s two characters are Polish equivalents of Jeckyll and Hyde.

Palimpsest was challenging to watch because we must follow Marek through his uncertainty and the breakdown of even his fantasy world.  By the end, we think we are seeing reality, but could it just be one more layer in a dream?  This is a film I must see again with fresh eyes knowing where the story goes.

Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I Love You)
Multiple directors
Rating: **1/2

Paris, je t’aime contains a series of vignettes as many directors give us a five-minute postcard of some part of the city.  I have to admit to dozing off for one or two arrondisments, but I don’t think they would have made much difference in my review.

Some vignettes are humourous, some touching, some tragic.  What could be a good idea goes off the rails about half way through.  Some episodes look forced with Elijah Wood as the victim of a vampire as a high (or low depending on your taste) point.  The sound level is cranked up to high for many parts and these sounds rather than the sights/sites make the impression.

Every actor’s appearance is a cameo, some better than others.  Fanny Ardent and Bob Hoskins are more effective as an aging couple putting spice back into their love life than Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazarra as a couple enroute to divorce. 

My favourite was Steve Buscemi as put upon tourist in the Tuileries Station, a segment directed by the Cohen brothers.  Not only must he endure the passion of two lovers on the opposite platform, a little brat with a pea shooter picks him as a target.

There are some quite charming parts of this film, and it’s almost the sort of thing I would want on DVD where I could edit out the less successful segments.  At two hours running time, a little trimming wouldn’t hurt.

Takva — A Man’s Fear of God
Özer Kiziltan
Rating: ***

Between political and religious troubles in the Middle East, and the rise of Christian conservatism in the west, we see very few stories that address that most basic premise, faith.  What does belief in God, any God, mean?  What is man’s relationship with the deity?  How does one know what is truly right and what to do in the face of temptation or wrong?

Takva — A Man’s Fear of God explores these questions movingly and in a context devoid of the political rhetoric surrounding so much religious debate.

Muharrem (Erkan Can) is a simple and very devout man.  He has worked for Ali, a sack trader in old Istanbul, since he was 11 when his father entrusted him to Ali as an apprentice.  He minds the shop and carries on an ordinary life devoted to his religion and to local monastery.

The Sheikh of the monastery needs someone to act as a business agent, to collect rents and manage properties whose income funds the sect’s works.  Inspired by a dream and by good sense, the Sheikh selects Muharrem as the new agent.  This is a deep honour, and it changes Muharrem’s life in many ways.

Formerly subservient to almost everyone, Muharrem is now called “brother” and “sir”.  People seek out his advice to ensure that their plans do not offend the monastery and, by implication, God.  Muharrem gains a cell phone, a car and a chauffeur, and discovers the material world has lures beyond his former life.  His simplicity and piety may have won him the job, but can he rise to it?

Now and then, Muharrem has dreams of physical passion and lust which shock and trouble him, moreso when the object of his dreams turns out to be the daughter of his Sheikh.  Then in the middle of a sale of sacks for Ali, such a simple task, he errs on the price and quotes a number far too high.  The customer happily acquiesces, and now Muharrem is stuck with unaccounted extra cash.  Should he give it back?  Should he continue to charge the same rate?  Does this deceit lower him in God’s eyes?

These questions are never answered, as indeed God never or rarely makes things easy for man.

I am not a devout “anything”, but find a tale, a fable almost, that deals with a true crisis of faith worth seeing.  Humanity and religion are so often bound up in violence and politics, while questions of why and what we believe, and what is demanded in return for the comfort of that belief, rarely confront us in the cinema.

Death of a President
Gabriel Range
United Kingdom
Rating: ***
FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award

Death of a President stirred up a lot of media attention, especially in the United States, for obvious reasons.  Is Gabriel Range suggesting that a sitting President should be assassinated?  What is his agenda?

People who ask these questions have not seen the film.  Yes, Death of a President does use real people and some real events, but to a good purpose.  First let me recap the main plot points.

It is October 2007, and George Bush is coming to Chicago to address a business association.  The middle-east war is even more unpopular than today, and a protest reminscent of the Viet Nam era is building in the streets.  The police try to keep order and press the crowd back, but they are unsuccessful.  For a time, the motorcade bringing Bush to the hotel is trapped.  We (knowing the film’s title) expect the worst, but the President arrives safely and gives his speech.  Only on the way out of the hotel does disaster strike — Bush is shot, rushed to hospital and dies.  Dick Cheney is sworn in as President.

The first suspect is a noted environmental activist who has threatened the President before.  He was at the rally, but is soon released because he has a clear alibi.  The second suspect is pure gold — a Syrian American caught on a surveillance tape leaving a nearby building just after the shooting.  The government has what it wants, the media have a field day, and the Syrians start to get very nervous.  There is only one problem, he didn’t do it, and even when the real culprit is identified, nobody wants to know.  (Spoiler:  It’s an ex-army major, the father of a soldier who was just shipped home in a box from the middle-east.)

Death of a President examines the manipulation of public opinion in the wake of a great tragedy.  We have the usual press leaks, the seemingly well-informed talking heads on the airways, and a collection of investigative agencies working at cross-purposes.  We gradually learn what is really going on, but they don’t, or don’t want to.

On another level, we have to question what we see and hear every day.  If someone can put together a credible “documentary” using footage of real events, where we even hear Dick Cheney giving a eulogy for George Bush, just how much can we believe the “real” news?

During the Q&A, someone asked Gabriel Range why he used a real rather than a fictitious president.  The answer is obvious, although Range didn’t articulate this well.  President Bush comes with a ready-made set of issues, loves and hatreds in the audience.  We will bring our own feelings to the story far more than to any made-up set of characters, and we’ll be sucked into the same media tricks by scenes we think we know. 

The machinations of Cheney’s crew and the creeping totaliarianism of a new Patriot Act may seem paranoid, but Range is in good company.  Two hit TV series last season (24 and Prison Break) dealt with unscrupulous politicians who stopped at nothing to usurp and maintain the presidency.